A damning loss of control of Universal Credit payments has meant that the Department for Work and Pensions has received a drubbing from the ministry’s auditors, the National Audit Office, and led to its accounts being qualified for 33rd year in succession.
While the ministry has been praised for its swift response to the pandemic by uplifting Universal Credit by £20 a week and coping with a doubling of people on the benefit, the grim costs to the ministry’s finances are revealed in its annual report.
Overpayments on Universal Credit have skyrocketed, criminal gangs have targeted business payments and the ministry has had to set aside £1 billion to pay 132,000 pensioners who have been underpaid their pensions for up to 30 years.
A new problem of identity theft of some 5000 claimants has also hit Universal Credit leaving some claimants losing benefit for weeks.
Overpayments hit record £8.3 billion
DWP estimates it overpaid £8.3 billion of the £111.4 billion that it spent on benefits in 2020-21, an increase of £3.8 billion on the previous year. The rate of overpayments increased from 4.4% in 2019-20 to 7.5% in 2020-21. Nearly all of the increase in fraud and error was on Universal Credit. DWP estimates it overpaid £5.5 billion of Universal Credit (14.5%) and underpaid £540 million (1.4%).
The NAO reports: “DWP has identified four key fraud and error risks within Universal Credit that it needs to tackle, as they are the largest causes of fraud and error. It is looking to improve controls over incorrectly reported self-employment earnings, savings, living arrangements and housing costs. It has also identified several organised criminal attacks during the pandemic, with fraudsters targeting Universal Credit in particular and making claims in other people’s names.
The Department is owed £5 billion of overpayments, placing additional strain on its resources and potentially causing uncertainty and hardship to claimants. It is not sure how much of its estimated loss of £8.4 billion in 2020-21 it will recover, as it has attempted to recover only 10% of the estimated loss in the last 5 years.”
The ministry is now having to bring in more staff to sort out the fraudulent claims and a criminal investigation has been launched.
On the underpayment of pensions the ministry has promised to pay the people by the end of next year.
The NAO report says: “The Department commissioned a root cause analysis to understand the cause of these underpayments. This analysis identified a range of process and control issues including poor staff training, instructions and quality review that led to the underpayments. These issues have also affected the Department’s initial work to quantify and rectify errors. The Department has asked the Government Internal Audit Agency to review State Pension legislation to ensure there are no further entitlements that may be underpaid.”
“The impact of this underpayment on the individual pensioners is significant, and it is vital the Department learns lessons to avoid systemic underpayments in the future and correct past underpayments.”
Gareth Davies, the head of the NAO, said:
“I am concerned that the level of fraud and error in the benefits system continues to increase year on year, now reaching its highest level since records began. This has a real impact on public funds and on those who face deductions to their income due to overpayments.
“I recognise that the pandemic and the resulting surge in the number of claimants has increased DWP’s exposure to fraud and error. It must now review all cases that could have been subject to fraud during this time, whilst continuing to progress our past recommendations on how to reduce fraud and error.”
Successive governments’ decision to cut drastically the legal aid budget has caused enormous damage to diverse women and girls groups according to witnesses who gave evidence today to the CEDAW People’s Tribunal.
They cover the plight of Muslim women who are forced to seek divorces at Sharia Courts because they cannot afford to go to a civil court, migrants denied access to legal aid and married women fleeing domestic violence going to family courts over the custody of children and divorce settlements. The tribunal is looking at how the Un Convention on the Elimination of all forms of discrimination can be put into UK law.
Legal aid ban putting Muslim women at the mercy of patriarchal fundamentalism
A damning indictment of the drastic effect of legal aid cuts which had created formidable barriers for all women – but especially black and ethnic minority women – was made by Pragna Patel.
She was particularly critical of the plight of Muslim women fleeing a marriage and unable to access the civil courts because of the lack of legal aid. Instead decisions were taken by unofficial religious courts dominated by conservative patriarchal fundamentalists. ” The woman has no status there, no right to keep her children, no property rights and no inheritance rights. This completely contravenes human rights.”
She cited a case of one woman who has only had a religious marriage – which had never been followed by a civil marriage. As a result when she went to a civil court to get her rights – the court could not rule on the marriage as it has never been legally recognised. The case has gone to the Law Commission but it has so far not ruled on it.
She also attacked the funding system – having won a judicial review against Ealing Council – when it withdrew funding. She said most of the money was now given to ” generic services ” based on getting results set by targets rather than specialist services offering long term support to people.
“Domestic abuse perpetrator given custody of children at his former wife’s expense”
Dr Proudman highlighted the lack of legal aid holding back women to defend their rights in family courts after quitting their marriage over domestic abuse. She said there was an inequality of arms when they had to appear as a litigant-in-person because they could not afford to pay a barrister. She also said the courts had the discretion on who should pay and where the children should reside in cases – leaving in one instance a woman who had left her husband because of domestic abuse having to pay for her children to be looked after by her abuser – her husband.
She was highly critical of the lack of training for barristers and judges on handling domestic abuse cases – and the failure of the government after the passing of the Domestic Abuse Act to specify what training will be given. She also said that many of the lawyers eyes glazed over when they the issues of women’s rights and certainly CEDAW were mentioned.
She also thought that judiciary was dominated by elite men -” male, pale and stale” – educated at private schools and Oxbridge. She said most of the women were also from the same elite -privately educated and with Oxbridge degrees – meaning neither knew much about the life of the people who came before their courts. She came from a working class background and had gone to a state comprehensive school.
Equality Act has left people working in silos
Esuantsiwa Jane Goldsmith, from Anona Development Consultancy on International Developments on Human Rights. Esuantsiwa was one of the first black VSO volunteers, serving as a teacher in Tanzania 1977-79. Esua was a leading figure in the UN process for women, attending the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women, Beijing 1995, as a member of the UK Government Delegation representing Development INGOs. She was founder and Chair of the Beijing Forum which co-ordinated the input of UK development NGOs. She was the first black woman Chair of theFawcett Society, Chair and Co-founder of the Gender and Development Network
Esua has highly critical and disappointed by the failure of the 2010 Equality Act. She had great hopes that the Equality and Human Rights Commission by putting all the equality issues together would be a big improvement. But instead she said it was still working in silos and relying on individual litigation.
She thought putting CEDAW into domestic law would create a much more holistic approach bringing together business, politicians, civil society, ngos and the women’s sector together by breaking down barriers.
She was scathing about the lack of progress of BAME women in Parliament – 35 out of 650 MPs. She also attacked the way white males trolled and pursued prominent black women like Diane Abbot, just because they were powerful people.
Dramatic rise in on line sexual abuse during the pandemic
Dr Kelly’s areas of research/expertise include domestic and sexual violence, policing, and more broadly violence against women and girls; including Rape Crisis. She has particular research experience in the policing of domestic abuse, image-based sexual abuse (including ‘cyberflashing’, so-called ‘revenge porn’ and ‘upskirting’) and feminist theory.
An alarming picture of the rise in ” revenge porn” during the pandemic leading to sexual violence against was women during the pandemic left the police unable to have the resources to act to control it, Dr Kelly told the tribunal. She said this caused “significant and devastating harm for women”. Black and ethnic minority men were disproportionately involved and many of the attacks were misogynistic with a sense of male entitlement that they could do what they wanted.
When sexual violence followed this the police were not always able to cope – with basic resources like police cars in short supply – so they couldn’t get out to see people. Perpetrators were getting away scot free and were also using on line dating sites.
She called for long lasting cultural changes including much better education of young boys, teaching them the need for consent.
Media stereotyping of women puts pressure on women politicians at national and local level
Sofia is Co Investigator in the ESCR-funded Representative Audit of Britain project, part of Parliamentary Candidates UK and principal investigator in the Survey of Local Candidates in England. Fields of expertise: Gender equality, Participation, Policy design and delivery
The media were criticised for stereotyping women politicians and putting extra strain on women in public life. Some times they were the victims of a campaign of disinformation or not given the opportunity to reply. She called on journalists to be more accurate and carefujl in their reporting of women ;politicians and local councillors.
She said that though there were more women MPs -originally from a low base – an analysis of candidates standing for Parliament showed they were often given unwinnable seats so never got elected. She praised three countries -Sweden, New Zealand and Mexico – for giving women politicians a pro active role. Mexico was particularly praised for having a gender equal role which saw a massive increase in the number of women politicians.
She thought Parliamentary candidates should have compulsory training in equal rights before they stood for Parliament – as part of an initiative to bring CEDAW into domestic law.
The secret UK world of polygamous marriages
Yasmin has worked for more than 30 years predominantly on violence against women, race, faith and gender, and human rights. She has acted as an expert witness in legal cases providing expert reports on faith based abuse and Muslim marriage practices including polygamy and temporary marriage. Yasmin is chief Executive Officer at JUNO WOMEN’S AID (formerly Women’s Aid Integrated Services).
An extraordinary picture of the unknown scale of polygamous marriages in the UK was given to the tribunal by Yasmin Rehman.
She said nobody knows the scale of the marriages and the government is blind to the problem. It is hidden because Imans often give secret ceremonies for Muslim men who have one civil marriage to marry other women. There is also a ban on sex outside marriage for Moslems, she said, – which is why there are some additional marriages. Other polygamous marriages avoid bigamy laws – as UK men with a wife and family at home, marry another woman in countries where polygamous marriages are allowed.
She said the religious practice was harmful to women who are given a subordinate role – but the real problem was the clash between the freedom of practices allowed by religion with gender and equality issues. Worse there was some evidence that women were trafficked into the UK for forced polygamous marriages.
” The issue is seen to be in the too difficult box which is why there is not a single politician who is prepared to take the issue up.”
She said only one politician – the former Tory Chancellor, Sajid Javid – had raised part of the issue – but only over children being forced to marry an older man.
Baljit Banga, executive director of Imkaam, a UK based black feminist umbrella organisation, gave a detailed run down on what was wrong with the Domestic Abuse Act and why there is a need for a much better alternative and Dr Annette Lawson, chair of the national Women’s Commission, abolished in 2010 on why there is a need for some successor funded body to pull all women’s groups together to implement CEDAW.
The hearings are now over and the next stage is to draw up a report.
Government dumps on Parliamentary Ombudsman as waiting list of cases forecast to rise to 4000
The government has thrown out any proposals to reform the overburdened Parliamentary Ombudsman service until after the next General Election in 2024.
Areply from Chloe Smith, junior Cabinet Office minister, to MPs on the Commons Public Administration Committee on their report into the Parliamentary Ombudsman reveals that reforms far from being delayed a year will not take place until 2025.
She writes:” The Government appreciates the desire of PACAC to modernise Ombudsman standards and agrees that this is an important matter. As outlined by the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster[ Michael Gove] in September 2020, the current pressures on the Government and the parliamentary timetable mean the 2016 Bill has not progressed and there are no plans to reform the Ombudsman system up to and including 2023–24. We will nonetheless carefully consider the committee’s findings and any future opportunities.”
The decision to delay any improvements to the service come at a time when there are 2663 cases waiting to be allocated and long delays for people awaiting to hear the result of their cases.
At the same time minutes of a board meeting at the Ombudsman’s office on February 18 and only just published reveals that the waiting list for cases to be allocated is forecast to rise to 4000. This is entirely due to complaInts arising from relatives of Covid 19 victims.
The report said: “It was proposed that, to allow the organisation to focus on complaints raising more serious issues, it would not routinely progress health complaints where the impact of the claimed injustice is relatively limited. This would apply to complaints determined to be at level 1 and level 2 of our Severity of Injustice scale. This is in line with other Ombudsman organisations.”
Relatives of Covid 19 victims not likely to get their complaint investigated
This is bad news for relatives of Covid 19 victims who are already been denied justice by Boris Johnson choosing to delay a Covid-19 public inquiry. It also raises the question how the Ombudsman would know a complaint was a serious problem until he had investigated it.
Robert Behrens, Parliamentary Ombudsman, in his reply to the committee suggests he might try and persuade Matt Hancock, the health secretary, to allow some changes to the Ombudsman’s powers in forthcoming legislation to reform the NHS.
He writes: “The forthcoming NHS legislation could also grant PHSO ‘own initiative’ powers to look at an NHS-related issue where someone would struggle to bring a complaint or where there is a fear that complaining to the Ombudsman might bring about personal repercussions in terms of the NHS care received. For example, if someone is a long-term inpatient with learning disabilities, they or their family may be reluctant to complain formally for fear that it would adversely affect that person’s care. “PHSO would welcome the Committee’s support for including these measures in the legislation that will follow the NHS Integration and Innovation White Paper. We would also welcome similar support for removing the out-dated MP filter and making other improvements in our Parliamentary jurisdiction when appropriate legislative opportunities arise.”
So the Ombudsman is left clutching at straws to get any reform at all. The public are left with a lousy service and the prospect of complaints being dumped because the Ombudsman will not have the resources to cope.
My thanks to a couple of readers for alerting me to the board meeting and thegovernment’s reply. It is nice to know people are keeping an eye on this
The Migration Museum – an innovative project to create the first permanent home for a museum in the United Kingdom devoted to a story that probably affects every person in the country – is looking for new trustees.
They will come at a time when the museum – at present in a temporary home in a shopping centre in Lewisham, south London is planning to boost its profile and move centre stage to highlight the issue and all its extraordinary facets.
As the prospectus for new trustees says
” Never before has there been stronger justification for there to be a welcoming and stimulating cultural institution – away from the polarising noise of politics and the media – to explore some of the most pressing issues of the day – migration, race, Brexit and our colonial past among them – in a richly aesthetic atmosphere of calm reflection.”
Aim, Vision and Values
The projects aim, vision and values are summed up in three paragraphs:
“Our Mission is to deliver a popular, high-profile and accessible cultural institution, to which every person in the country can feel a sense of belonging and that puts Britain’s migration story at centre stage.
“Our Vision is of a society in which we all (for we all have migration stories in our family past, if we dig a little) feel connected and represented in an essentially British shared migration story.
” Our Values are to promote tolerance, understanding, respect and participation, and to engender a real sense of representation, both beyond our organisation and within it. This means that we are strongly committed to promoting diversity and representation within our Board, not only to reflect the lived experience of our audiences, but also to deliver role models for those who join, or aspire to join us, as trustees, employees, volunteers or collaborators. “
For the last few years the museum has already put on a number of exciting events – from recreating the Jungle camp ( and all the art) made by migrants in Calais to putting on a concert by Aeham Ahmad, the incredibly brave and talented pianist who played his piano on the streets of bombed out Yarmouk in Damascus until he was forced to flee by the Syrian dictator Assad to Germany.
More recently during the pandemic there has been a digital exhibition of migrants contribution to the NHS and a series of digital exhibitions telling the story of emigration from the UK and those who were left behind.
For those who might be interested the deadline for applications is May 3 and the prospectus and all the details are here.
I am one of 120 Distinguished Friends of the Migration Museum and am a strong supporter of the project. I have also written a number of stories on this blog on some of their past exhibitions. Here are a few of them.
Earlier this year I reported on a letter sent by Sir Robert Behrens, the Parliamentary Ombudsman, to MPs on the Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee on why he could not implement a three year programme to improve the service for another year.
The letter revealed that Michael Gove, the Cabinet Office minister, had decided not to go ahead with a three year funding plan to make it happen until 2022. As a result the Ombudsman would be expected to concentrate on complaints about Covid19 and would not have the budget to do much about improving the service beyond laying the bare bones of the idea.
I suspected that the service might be overwhelmed and asked for the figures on the number of people on the ” waiting list” to get their complaint heard and the number of cases where people were awaiting a decision. The media office declined to give me the information immediately and converted my press inquiry into a Freedom of Information request to delay it for 20 working days.
Physical queue could stretch from Millbank Tower to Westminster Bridge
We now know why. Figures released under that FOI request reveal that the Ombudsman show that a staggering 2663 people are in a virtual queue to await to be assigned to a caseworker. If everybody physically turned up ( not allowed at the moment due to the pandemic) it would stretch from the Ombudsman’s office at Millbank Tower right along the Embankment to the Houses of Parliament and possibly across Westminster Bridge.
They also released the figures awaiting a result from their complaint. That is 2699. So almost as many people are waiting to get to get a case worker to look into their complaint as the number of people waiting for a result.. That might explain the latest figures from the Ombudsman Office’s own performance standards review which shows that only 51 per cent gave a positive reply to the point “We will give you a final decision on your complaint as soon as we can”. It means 49 per cent weren’t impressed with that claim.
The Ombudsman’s Office have also told me that nowhere in their building is there ” any recorded information confirming that “the public will get worse service this year”. This seems to me more of an act of self denial than a possible statement of fact.
The Ombudsman seem to be relying on two mitigating developments to help them overcome this frankly appalling scenario.
Planned new NHS Complaints Handling Service
They are plans for a new model NHS Complaints Handling Service that will aim to take the pressure off the Ombudsman’s Office by trying to sort out patients’ complaints before they have to go to him. But as the section on this new procedure on the Ombudsman’s website discloses that these are only draft guidance. Participation by health bodies is voluntary and as yet plans for pilot projects have not been finalised. My guess is that probably the best health trusts will pilot it, the worst won’t want to know.
The second move is the appointment of a £80,000 Director of External Affairs, Strategy and Communications to drive through the new strategy and report to Gill Fitzpatrick, chief operating officer. There is a full description on the headhunters website, Hays, of the job. Today ( April 12) the Ombudsman confirmed that the post had been filled by Rebecca Hilsenrath, the former chief executive of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, who officially resigned last week. Three months ago Ms Hilsenrath was in the centre of a row that she had twice breached lockdown rules by going with her family to her Welsh country cottage. You can read about the allegations and her resignation in two articles I wrote for Byline Times articles here and here. By all accounts this is a very curious and controversial appointment.
Altogether the situation at the Ombudsman’s Office does not present a pretty picture. A cynic might say it is not a priority to put money into watchdog bodies because all it does is highlight problems when things go wrong. And a government that would love to stay in power forever wants to present the idea that the UK has world beating public services and hide anything that might detract from that propaganda.
The Parliamentary Ombudsman File
Here are previous stories on this blog on the issue
Parliamentary Ombudsman slips out progress report on 50s and 60s born women pensions complaint
It is commonly known in Whitehall that if want to bury bad news, choose an obscure part of your website, make a big announcement and don’t put out a press release .Yesterday I found out Sir Robert Behrens, the Parliamentary Ombudsman, has done just that.
Hisannouncement on the progress of his four year long investigation on maladministration by the Department for Work and Pensions over notifying the women amounts to pretty much a non announcement. Partly this is because he is restricted by an Ombudsman law which urgently needs updating, Partly it is his own fault that he has made so little progress.
I suspect that he may have thought it was a good idea to make this announcement because it was clear from the recent reporton the Ombudsman by the House of Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Select Committee that people are dissatisfied with his progress. There are conflicting reports that another announcement may be imminent to follow this up.
WASPI Cheltenham statement yesterday
Cheltenham WASPI 19th March
We understand that the Parliamentary & Health Service Ombudsman may make an announcement “imminently”.We expect that this will be the official result of the first stage of their investigation. This will decide whether there was maladministration when we were given inadequate notice of the changes to our State Pension Age.
There are three stages that must be completed before decisions about any compensation can be made:Stage 1: Was there maladministration?Stage 2: If so, did the maladministration lead to injustice?Stage 3: If so, what recommendations should be made to put things right? This could include compensation.It is important to remember that a positive decision on maladministration does not automatically mean that we will get compensation. It is only the first step in the process. Please note that any decision made by the Ombudsman will apply to ALL 1950s women affected by a delay to their State Pension, not just those who have made an official complaint.You can read full details of this process, and how compensation is calculated, here https://www.ombudsman.org.uk/complaints-womens-state…We will let you know as soon as we hear anything further. In the meantime please share this information with anyone you know who’s affected.”
It will have to be good if it is meant to mollify people he hasn’t done a good job. The announcement is good in explaining to people how an Ombudsman handles an inquiry and why people need to be patient but bad in hiding his own mistakes which have contributed to this delay.
The worst example of this was his decision to pause the investigation in 2017 the moment it became clear that the BackTo60 group, campaigning for the women, were going to the courts for a judicial review on behalf of the 3.8 million women who thought they had been cheated by the decision.
Belatedly yesterday he has now admitted this was false.
“We have reviewed the Court of Appeal’s judgment and it does not affect our investigation. Our investigation is looking at the issues from a different perspective to the courts,” says the announcement.
DWP lawyers argued in court that the ministry had no obligation to tell the women
The announcement suggests that – despite the DWP’s lawyers arguing in the courts that under the 1995 Act the DWP had no obligation in law to tell anyone about the change – that the failure to inform everyone affected properly could have been maladministration. The announcement admits that the first stage of the investigation on this matter is complete and they have a preliminary finding but are not allowed by law – under the 1967 Ombudsman Act – to tell any member of the public about it.
The second clue is that he talks about the second stage – which is discussing any financial remedy for maladministration. This can only happen if the first stage is proved. The advice says there were “complaints that women were given inaccurate information about the number of years of National Insurance contributions they needed to receive a full State Pension. We will be looking at this issue as part of stage two of our investigation. “
“Our investigation is looking at the issues from a different perspective to the courts,” Parliamentary Ombudsman
What is depressing for the women is what the Ombudsman has ruled out . He won’t investigate full restitution or the payments of ” auto credits” – up to five years of insurance contributions only for men over the age of 60. The auto credits are controversial because originally the government intended to give them to women between 2010 and 2018 when they raised the pension age.
The level of compensation is also likely to be low – the one example he gives is a figure of between £500 and £950. In fact the Ombudsman can order anything from an apology and no compensation to over £10,000 in the most extreme cases.
This will be a drop in the ocean for those who have lost £40,000 or more from this decision.
It looks like any compensation will be for all including women born in the 1960s as well as the 1950s.
The real scandal is how long this will take. Covid 19 has already killed a substantial number of women in this group and bad health, stress and poverty is putting many others at risk. You only have to read the comments from people on my blog to see this.
No idea when he will report
He can’t even give a ball park date when he will report. The more he delays the fewer people will get any compensation because they will be dead. Unlike other inquiries the grim reaper will keep reducing the size of the overall compensation package.
While Covid 19 has left the government with huge bills, the effect of the pandemic since it is more severe on the elderly is reducing the Treasury’s pension bill and killing off those who would have got a pension later.
I wouldn’t suggest that ministers would be so callous to welcome the huge number of deaths among the elderly, but it is certainly saving them a lot of money on pension costs.
Dr Usha Prasad, the cardiologist currently appealing against her dismissal from the Epsom and St Helier University Trust, has been exonerated by General Medical Council of any medical failings or putting patient safety at risk.
The decision by the GMC not only rejected a dossier of complaints from the trust but decided that the issue was closed and will not be re-opened again by the GMC.
The decision is part of a long running saga that has been going on for nine years and heightened by an anonymous letter sent by Dr Perikala, a staff doctor, who made the patient safety allegations in an anonymous letter to the General Medical Council, Care Quality Commission, Daniel Elkeles, the chief executive of the trust and Jeremy Hunt, then the health secretary in 2015.
The GMC initially declined to investigate Dr Perikala’s anonymous complaint but the trust has persisted in pursuing her at the GMC.
I understand Dr James Marsh, the trust’s medical director, and Dr Richard Bogle, the lead cardiologist at the trust, compiled a dossier of no fewer than 43 cases which they claimed should be investigated. The GMC narrowed it down to seven cases and sent them for review to a very distinguished consultant at the James Cook Hospital in Middlesbrough whose career has spanned work at Papworth Hospital and Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge. The very detailed report came back completely exonerating her of any failings. She has also received glowing references from Pinderfields Hospital where she is currently working as a cardiologist after the Epsom trust dismissed her.
The GMC’s decision comes just as an internal inquiry into her appeal is under way. This is being heard by Claire McLaughlan an independent consultant, and Associate Director of the National Clinical Assessment Service with an interest in the remediation, reskilling and rehabilitation of healthcare professionals. The case was also being followed by Dr Zoe Penn, Medical Director NHS England ,London Region and Lead for Professional Standards. She is sitting on the panel with Claire McLaughlan. Ms Mclaughlan runs a private business with her husband in Hampshire.
The fact that the hearing is taking place now is questionable since Professor Stephen Powis, national medical director of NHS England, told health trusts NOT to hold such hearings when the NHS is under pressure from the pandemic. I checked with the press office of NHS Resolutions and they have supplied me with the guidance for such hearings. They really should only be held if there is an absolute necessity and immediate risk to patient safety. Now with the GMC deciding there is no current and immediate risk to patient safety in Dr Prasad’s case – this makes the hearing even more questionable.
Officially the GMC will not comment on personal cases but they did confirm her clean bill of health entry on their public register which is reproduced below. All entries on this register have to be kept up to date on a daily basis. The saga continues but the case being made by the trust looks pretty weak after this decision by the GMC.
Since this blog was published I have had this strong message of support from Justice for Doctors. Here it is:
Dear Mr. Hencke, you are doing an excellent job by highlighting the problems with our NHS and how splendid doctors like Usha Prasad had been treated. It was very courageous of Usha to challenge the wrongdoings and the harsh decisions by our health institutions at a time when the GMC are calling retired doctors to rescue the overstretched NHS.
Without dedicated and committed doctors like Usha Prasad, our NHS will crumble and collapse. The misleaders and bullies will remain to demolish what goodness is left in our NHS. Unfortunately, most doctors retire or change location whenever they were unfairly challenged. Moving away will not solve the problem but encourage bullies and harassers to thrive and do more damage.
In our view, Dr. Prasad has won the moment she decided to stand firm and challenge the discrimination, the harsh and unfair decisions. We congratulate both of you for raising awareness about what goes on in our hospitals and congratulate Usha for her courage and conviction. Thank you On behalf of Justice for Doctors
Robert Behrens, the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman. has finally come clean publicly that it cannot cope with handling complaints and has issued a public statement.
This followed a blog I wrote earlier revealing that the Ombudsman had faced fresh curbs on its budget from the Treasury. Instead of a new three year budget to help improve services it has only been given one year of funding.
But it chose not to announce that publicly and instead sent a letter to William Wragg, the Tory chair of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, hiding it a Parliamentary correspondence file.
In the letter Robert Behrens says “We will postpone the launch of PHSO’s new three-year strategy until we can secure the three-year funding settlement necessary to deliver it. Instead, we will use 2021-22 as a bridging year to lay the foundations for the new strategy and focus on addressing the significant operational challenges facing PHSO’s service.”
Several months of delays
Now the Ombudsman has stuck a long statement on its site which reads:
“Our service remains open but given the unprecedented situation you may experience delays of several months when you bring a complaint to us. We are very sorry about the delay and will do our best to support you through these uncertain times. We will focus on helping the most vulnerable as a priority.
To help us work through the complaints we are receiving, please do not submit a complaint to us if it is about:
• delays with complaint responses • matters which are likely to resolve themselves within the next few weeks/months • delays in service delivery which are non-critical and are the result of an organisation coping with COVID-19.
Please use our complaint checker below to make sure your complaint is ready for us to look at.
The pressures currently faced by the NHS may mean that it is not possible for us to progress some health complaints at this time. Your caseworker will keep you informed of any delays with your case.
The statement is still not entirely transparent as it blames Covid 19 entirely for the problem when it is also being hit by the postponement of its budget settlement. The Ombudsman also caused consternation among some people awaiting the result of their complaints by taking down the site on Saturday and Sunday morning without any explanation. Most banks and building societies put up a notice saying a site would not be available because they are working on it. Not so the uncommunicative Ombudsman.
This led one of my readers, Darren Watts, to contact me because he thought the Ombudsman had closed down the website. He is one of a large number of people awaiting the result of a complaint. I am extremely grateful for him letting me know and also grateful that the service was restored. I have to add I am not very impressed to say the least.
The Parliamentary Ombudsman has already – as I wrote in an earlier blog – faced a critical report from MPs on the way it handles some of its work.
And Michael Gove, the Cabinet Office minister, has also turned down any prospect of new legislation to modernise the service by combining its work with the local government and social care ombudsman.
Not content with that, Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor, has now postponed a three year funding programme which would have allowed it to introduce changes to improve matters.
Instead The Treasury has decided to give it just one year’s worth of funding and instructed it to concentrate on handling complaints arising out of Covid 19 pushing aside other grievances..
Details of this latest bad news has not been put out in any press release by the Ombudsman but has been hidden away in the correspondence section of the House of Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committtee.
A letter from Rob Behrens, the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman, to William Wragg, the Tory chair of the committee, reveals the not very bright future for people wanting to take the NHS to the Ombudsman or for the 1950s born women hoping for compensation for maladministration over the six year rise in the date they could claim their pension.
In the letter Mr Behrens says “We will postpone the launch of PHSO’s new three-year strategy until we can secure the three-year funding settlement necessary to deliver it. Instead, we will use 2021-22 as a bridging year to lay the foundations for the new strategy and focus on addressing the significant operational challenges facing PHSO’s service.”
Severely affected by Covid – 19
He goes on to describe what next financial year will be like:
“PHSO’s service has been severely affected by the ongoing COVID-19 situation in a number of ways, from the impact of school closures on the availability of staff, to pressures on the NHS that mean services are taking longer to respond to PHSO’s requests for information. “As a result, PHSO is closing substantially fewer cases than usual and, in turn, this means a growing number of complainants are waiting for their case to be allocated to a caseworker. “Although we have started to recruit some more caseworkers, it takes a minimum of six months to train new staff and even with additional caseworkers, it is clear that complainants will face increasingly long wait times unless we take further action.”
Delaying revealing the size of the complaints waiting list
I asked the Ombudsman to give me details of how many cases they were and how long they were taking. I also asked about the size of the waiting list. Simple questions enough if they are on top of the job. Instead they have decided to turn it into a Freedom of Information request which will give them a month or two to reply. I will report back when I have the figures.
In the meantime the letter says: “This means we will prioritise the quality and productivity of PHSO’s core complaints-handling service. We will also use 2021-22 to carry out preliminary work to support the new three-year strategy, such as improvements to some of PHSO’s core systems and processes, and highlighting opportunities for Parliament to make essential improvements to PHSO’s legal framework, such as removing the MP filter.” The latter point is that all complaints have to go through MPs at the moment.
The whole situation is not good at all. But I am not surprised that the government is not keen on funding or modernising the service. A more efficient service will bring to light injustices – which means a bad press for government services – and ministers don’t like bad publicity. Far better to deprive the Ombudsman of cash and keep the announcement hidden in the correspondence column of a committee.
The Ethical Journalist Network held a thought provoking webinar this week where experts gave top tips for journalists in writing up stories, read by millions of people, about the latest scientific and factual developments in the current world wide pandemic. As a member of the EJN UK committee myself I am reproducing the report written by Ali May, a fellow member of the committee. As he says it is an issue of life and death.
If you click on the headline it will take you to the EJN website where you see the original article ( reproduced below), learn more about the charity and read about other key issues journalists cover. Here is the full recording of the session chaired by investigative journalist James Ball.
As vaccines effective against the novel Coronavirus begin their global rollout, tackling misinformation, disinformation and earning public confidence could not be more starkly an issue of life and death.
This was the theme of a panel for the Ethical Journalism Network chaired by EJN trustee and Bureau of Investigative Journalism global editor James Ball, in which experts explored the role of journalists in tackling disinformation, the communicating of public health messages, and online fact-checking during this key phase of response to the Coronavirus pandemic.
What should journalists do to tackle misinformation, where are such myths coming from, and how can reporters avoid inadvertently becoming vectors for health misinformation? Professor Sir David Spiegelhalter, Kate Wilkinson, Nina Jankowicz, Anjana Ahuja and Marianna Spring joined Ball to share their insights.
A wave of misinformation about Coronavirus on social media has evolved over the past year, observed BBC Specialist Reporter Marianna Spring who covers disinformation and social media.
“At the beginning, it was lots of panicked viral WhatsApp messages, voice notes, lots of really understandable concern about what was going on about lockdowns, about how you could cure or prevent Coronavirus and while it was often spread quite innocently, its impact could often be really quite bad, giving people bad health advice, advice at a time when they most need good advice and resulting in direct harm. And as the pandemic went on, you started to see the human cost of that misinformation,” she said.
The same sentiment was reflected in comments by Nina Jankowicz, the author of How to Lose the Information War.
“Disinformation is not just silly memes on the internet. It’s not just fringe groups, talking about fringy things, but it has offline harm. And I think over the last year, we have seen case after case after case of that harm being borne out in real life.”
She pointed at the case of Ukrainians evacuated from Wuhan in the early days of the pandemic whose return caused riots in the country, with their bus attacked.
In such a tricky environment, the importance of fact-checking has become vital. And it comes in different forms, depending on the context. Fact-checking sometimes needs to play a diplomatic role, according to Kate Wilkinson, deputy chief editor at Africa Check.
“You sometimes have to act as a bit of a bridge between what’s happening on the ground, and what the scientific community thinks is worthy of their time and attention,” she said, “What can be difficult though, is when you go to an expert, a scientist, or a doctor who is understandably under quite a lot of pressure and stress, and you take what they consider to be quite ridiculous concepts or ideas, and you want half an hour of their time to actually unpack it. So, you can explain accurately why that can’t be the case, you sometimes get a mismatch between what the public is really fervently believing and what the experts or the scientists believe is worth their time or worth debunking.”
Editorial judgement becomes much more important at times of crisis. In the middle of a global pandemic, journalists have to make “a nuanced judgment about where the balance of evidence lies,” said science journalist Anjana Ahuja, a contributing writer for the Financial Times.
“Deciding what to platform is important,” she said, “There’s no point me putting up something quite frivolous just to knock it down, because that actually just circulates the idea further.”
Professor Sir David Spiegelhalter, author of the Art of Statistics, said there was reason to be optimistic, caused by the side effects of the pandemic.
“The relationship between the media and experts has matured,” he said, “experts have become, hopefully, better at expressing uncertainty, about inadequacy of explaining that the evidence isn’t good enough to be confident either way.”
He hoped that journalists will “realise that science is a hotly disputed area, that basically, there’s a lot of uncertainty, there are groups with different opinions that never been aired in public.”
Tips for journalists, shared by the panellists:
Get in there first. Counter the misinformation before people hear it on WhatsApp.
Don’t try to use tricks to be trusted. Demonstrate trustworthiness on a purely ethical basis.
Think carefully about what issues are worth legitimising by covering, and how issues might need to be reframed. In the case of climate change, Ahuja says ‘I decided to reframe it in my writing as climate emergency or crisis. Because it suggests that with climate change there is no question. The extent is how much do we need to worry about it? It’s happening.’
Meet people where they are in a language that they understand.
Approach people and the issues they hold strongly with empathy. Disinformation and conspiracy theories online can have a significant impact on people. Understanding the legitimate concerns and fears often explain why they’ve sought out those conspiracies, or where they have been preyed upon or conned into believing them. Separate those who are victims or casualties of online falsehoods and conspiracies from those often very small number of committed activists or bad actors who are deliberately looking to exploit that nervousness or that concern.